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The Dark Side of the Moon
I mean, dude, have you ever really, you know, looked at your hand?
Every generation recasts the cultural canon, but the Boomers, with their socio-political firepower, blew it all up. From Monty Python to Spike Lee, from Prince to Wolf Hall, they scorned the old orthodoxies, rediscovered forgotten gems and created a whole canon. And then never stopped going on about it. But were their choices… ok?
OK, Boomer: The Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd (1973)
“to musically inquisitive adolescents Dark Side Of The Moon was the ultimate ‘older brother’s album’. It was somehow different. For starters, it actually smelled different – although it was some years before the sweet, strangely herbal odour emanating from a mate’s older brother’s copy was to be identified – there were no pictures of the band to be found anywhere on its gatefold sleeve, and you never saw Pink Floyd on Top Of The Pops; reason enough at that time to doubt whether they even existed.”
Q Magazine, 1998
Dark Side of the Moon is the classic rock long-player: the record that launched a thousand stoned conspiracy theories about The Wizard of Oz, brought prog rock into the mainstream, and made Pink Floyd millionnaires. The holotype of the album, it is more than a collection of songs; it is an experience. A complete and indivisible work of art. It built on the psychedelic multi-track studio wizardry of The Beatles to create an immersive soundscape of voices, wordless soaring melodies, strident rock hectoring and swirling philosophical musings. A whole world etched into 12 inches of vinyl.
And then, about a decade later, into plastic.
Introduced in the early ‘80s, CDs represented a whole new gold rush for the record industry. Not only could they re-release the great classics in a new format, they could sell them all over again to people who already owned the vinyl (and probably the cassette, too). At the same time a whole new generation of music fans were growing up. Smash Hits readers, weaned on the great early ‘80s British explosion of pop brilliance, were starting to expand both their horizons and their earning potential.
In 1986, David Hepworth and Mark Ellen, erstwhile editors of Smash Hits, came together to launch a new music magazine: Q. Q was a glossier, weightier product, aimed at an older readership than Smash Hits, thick with not just reviews of singles and albums (and film, and TV, and radio) but features and interviews. I bought it from issue one and right on through the late ‘80s. I’m sorry to say that that collection is long gone now.
This conjunction - CD reissues of classics, and an audience who didn’t yet know that these were classics - made records like Dark Side of the Moon quintessential Q magazine fodder, exactly the sort of Boomer canon that Generation X was being persuaded was important: like Exile on Main Street and The White Album, you had to know, understand and adore it.
Listening to Dark Side of the Moon now is like watching an Adam Curtis documentary. A wash of doomy, tuneful music, a kaleidoscopic montage of odd, captivating images, and a clever-clogs conspiratorial voice in your ear insisting on your own stupidity and lack of agency. It has the hectoring quality of the auto-didact 21 year old, the young man who has seen through all of society’s facades and realised something no one has ever realised before, and insists on their voice being heard, their opinion being shared.
Autodidacticism is, of course, an excellent and noble thing, and I am being an intellectual snob. But having discovered how much has been kept from you, how much there is to discover, there is a tendency towards paranoia, towards conspiracy theory. All those intellectual snobs, after all, genuinely are sneering and excluding you from conversations and cultural in-jokes. A degree of suspicion is justified.
I grew up on the insistent first-person of punk and New Wave: ‘I am an anarchist’, ‘I am lost in the supermarket’, ‘I wanna hold her, hold her tight, get teenage kicks all through the night’. So it’s striking how often Dark Side of the Moon talks about ‘you’: ‘You run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking’, ‘You get a good job with more pay and you're okay’, ‘And all you touch and all you see/Is all your life will ever be’. It’s like being cornered at a party by someone intent on listing every one of your failings.
This is the worldly wise voice of the older brother who’s clever and mature enough to like prog rock: it is educational and condescending, intimate and irritating, interesting and tedious, as only a family member can be.
The Dark Side of the Moon is the audio equivalent of a Christopher Nolan film: somewhat reactionary, not nearly as clever as it thinks it is, but so well made it’s hard to resist.
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Is it OK?
And that’s the thing, isn’t it? Because there are some absolutely banging tunes on The Dark Side of the Moon; the singles, the music used in adverts and soundtracks: ‘Money’, ‘Time’, ‘Great Gig in the Sky’ - are all pretty good songs.
And yet, and yet. I listened to this record a lot as a teenager, as instructed by Q magazine. I really tried to get into it, and I never did. And relistening to it for this piece, I didn’t all over again. In fact, I had to re-listen to it over and over again because my concentration kept wandering. Those pretty good songs get derailed into pretty tedious guitar solos and pretty self-indulgent production. It’s a luxury saloon of a record, perfectly made instruments let into a seamless walnut dash. It is beautifully crafted and just a little bit staid and boring.
What I kept hearing was the contemporaneous records that I have discovered since. ‘On The Run’ sounds like a motorik offcut from some ‘70s Krautrock outfit like Can or Neu! ‘Money’ could quite easily be a minor track (like ‘Graham Greene’) on John Cale’s 1973 masterpiece Paris 1919. I hear traces of Nick Drake, and Captain Beefheart’s weirdly mainstream Bluejeans and Moonbeams (1974).
Because The Dark Side of the Moon is a gateway drug. Not only did it take Pink Floyd mainstream, it took underground music mainstream too. It acted as the curator, pointing out all these new and interesting sounds and ideas to us. It was the big brother who was helpfully opening the doors of perception for the rest of us to wander through. This means, of course, that it has had a lasting influence, and not just on music: when Douglas Adams said he wanted his radio comedy show Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1978) to sound like a rock album, he was undoubtedly thinking of Dark Side of the Moon. The trouble is, it no longer stands out like it did before it changed the world. As Dave Gilmour himself pointed to out (to Q magazine, of course):
‘I thought it was a very complicated album when we first made it, but when you listen to it now it's really very simple.’
It is a mainstream record that contained homoeopathic amounts of the underground, and therefore acted as a slip road, a junction in rock music. A glimpse of bright yellow ragwort, of butterfly flickering buddleia and a fox asleep in a discarded tyre, and then it’s past and gone, and you’re on with your journey, off to the next adventure.
Still, the cover’s really good.
Of course, compared to pop music of the mid-’70s, Pink Floyd were a rare treat: